The Pitfalls of Perfectionism

I think that the term “perfectionist” gets thrown around a lot.  There is a tendency to haphazardly label anyone who sets high standards for themselves as a “perfectionist” the same way that anyone who likes to keep things neat and orderly tends be labeled “OCD.”

I was called out as being a perfectionist by my sports psychology professor in front of my classmates this week.  I initially accepted it without much consideration.  It’s certainly not the first time I’ve been labeled as one, and I didn’t disagree with the label based on the fact that I know I set high standards for myself.  However, as the discussion went on, I realized that the nature of true perfectionism is far more pervasive and obsessive than that…and that every bit of that real definition rang true for me.

What is true perfectionism?

A rigid and pervasive mindset which maintains that a person can and should be perfect in everything they attempt in life without mistakes, slip-ups, or deviation.

There are beliefs associated with perfectionism that can be highly maladaptive to achieving success.  Some of the hallmark beliefs of perfectionists include:

  • “No matter what I do, I’m never good enough”
  • “There is no sense in trying unless I do it perfectly”
  • “If I don’t reach the ideal, I’m a failure”
  • “There is only one way to reach a goal – the right way”
  • “It is unacceptable to make a mistake”
  • “I have no value/self-worth unless I’m perfect”

These beliefs are generally grounded in the fear of failure and/or the fear of rejection.  They also lead to behavior that inhibits the ability to be successful and achieve goals.  Traits and behaviors of perfectionists include:

  • Harsh self-judgement/criticism
  • Excessive guilt/rumination over mistakes and deviations from “the right way”
  • Indecision/immobilization
  • Procrastination/playing it safe
  • Constant frustration
  • Pessimism

These things absolutely describe me to a tee.  I am extremely critical of myself.  When I make a mistake, I will ruminate about it for days or weeks – even after it has been fixed or have been forgiven.  I will beat myself up about it and feel tremendous guilt for an unreasonable amount of time.  I tend to think in very black and white terms – I usually have a specific idea in my mind of the “right” way to accomplish something, and if I don’t follow the plan exactly, I am tempted to (and often have) abandon the goal because my execution of the plan was flawed (i.e. it’s not worth doing if I can’t do it perfectly).  I have declined to make many big decisions in the past because I wasn’t sure what the “right” thing to do was or if it was the “right” time to do it.  This has frequently left me in a state of utter inertia because although I may have desperately wanted something to change, I refused make a change because I was not sure whether it was the “right” thing for me.  I procrastinated frequently (i.e. competing in figure for, I don’t know, the past 5 years!) because I didn’t think I was ready or wouldn’t be able to perform at the level I wanted to.

Preparing for this competition has significantly raised my level of awareness about my perfectionist traits and attitudes, and they have really reared their ugly heads in the past few weeks.  I know that I haven’t followed my competition preparation 100%.  I have skipped workouts here and there, and I have eaten things that I shouldn’t have.  In my mind, I don’t look the way I “should” at 2 weeks out from the competition…which means that I also don’t think I will look the way I “should” look on competition day.  Even though I’m in the home stretch, the thought has crossed my mind not to go through with the competition.  How crazy is that?!  Despite all of the time, energy, money, etc. invested in this whole process, I have thought about not finishing simply because I wasn’t perfect in every way for the past 12 weeks and won’t be perfect when I get on stage.  That is intense and ridiculous!  I’ve also found myself skipping ahead and thinking about my next competition and how I’ll be perfect the next time around.  It’s as if I’m bypassing my first competition because I know it won’t turn out perfectly.

I recognize that these thoughts are irrational and counterproductive.  So how do I overcome my perfectionism?  I don’t think I entirely have the answer to that question right now, but it starts with staying in the present (not what I did in the past or will do in the future), remaining focused on enjoying the process instead of the outcome, and trying to be more flexible in my thinking.

Competition day = 2 weeks from today.  Game on!

P.S.  There is no way in hell I would ever let myself back out of competing on November 5th – just because the thought crossed my mind doesn’t mean I entertained it! 🙂


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